Texas Tribune CEO encourages entrepreneurial spirit in students

Senior News Reporter
Evan Smith, CEO of The Texas Tribune, speaks Feb. 25 at Old Main.

The School of Journalism and Mass Communication hosted Evan Smith, The Texas Tribune’s CEO, editor-in-chief and co-founder, Feb. 25 as part of the Digital Media Entrepreneurship Speaker Series.

Smith arrived and the students in attendance greeted him with applause. Smith spoke on the entrepreneurial spirit of the Tribune and the new age of journalism.

“The buzzkill of buzzkills in entrepreneurship is caution,” Smith said.

The early days of the Tribune were not a “sexy time” for the new non-profit media outlet, Smith said. Smith helped establish the Tribune in 2009 with Ross Ramsey and John Thornton.  The idea for the digital-first, nonpartisan media outlet began from the bottom up.

“When you build from an empty lot, there are no excuses,” Smith said. “You build the thing you have an image of in your head.”

Smith recalled him and Ramsey sketching a ‘fantasy draft’ of their top picks for potential journalists shortly before the Tribune launched.

“We stumbled and fumbled along in those early days and made some assumptions that were wrong,” Smith said.

People succeed by being familiar with many things, Smith said. Students need to have various skills to deploy as a situation presents itself.

Smith does not dispute a career in journalism is difficult and not suitable for everyone. He said the people succeeding in the field are problem-solvers and demonstrate self-determination.

Smith described boredom as the reason he left Texas Monthly, the publication he worked for before co-founding the Tribune.

“Serious journalism needs to be saved, and the full-profit model is not doing a good job of ensuring the kind of serious journalism we need,” Smith said.

Data journalism is a non-traditional, effective approach that is an essential component to news and digital media, Smith said.

Smith said he hopes to replicate targeting techniques used by politicians to collect data to help expand the Tribune’s audience. The techniques would help to determine which demographics do and do not read the publication, he said.

Smith wants the Tribune to be part of the transforming landscape of media. Smith said the Tribune adapts to the technology culture through teamwork.

“We have newsrooms full of reporters, news applications, programmers (and) columnists,” Smith said. “The magic happens when they work collaboratively.”

People who say pursuing a career in journalism is a bad idea are lazy, he said.

Smith gave students advice on entering the workforce upon graduation. He said journalists should “show up,” be present and not waste opportunities.

“We need you more than you need us,” Smith said. “You are the luckiest group of soon-to-be graduates on earth.”